Pygmalion Effect and Women Who Prove it Wrong

Pygmalion Effect and the Strong Women Who Prove it Wrong

Make this fair statue mine…Give me the likeness of my iv’ry maid (Ovid).

In Metamorphoses X, Ovid’s Pygmalion prays that his idealized statue will become real. Strong female characters were a threat to Victorian sensibilities. Like the Pygmalion character in Ovid’s Metamorphoses X, males in the Victorian age created ivory-like stereotypes of the ideal woman. In late nineteenth and in early twentieth century literature, Victorian culture was frequently lampooned or criticized by creating ivory-maiden characters that broke or flouted the stereotype in various ways in order to deal with the insane male dominated reality.

Like the statue in the original Pygmalion, women have to deal with the stereotypical images dictated by the male society. In all three of our works Riders to the Sea by J.M. Synge (Maurya), Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw (Eliza) and Trifles by Susan Glaspell (Minnie), the three female characters have to deal with male domination and push the envelopes of their femininity to deal with the male-dominated world of Victorian sensibilities. The male figures are shown to be short sighted and blinded by their prejudice concerning women. These male figures look only at the superficial aspects of the females in their lives and fail to perceive the sophistication of these women. They try to mold the women instead into their ideal female likeness.

George Bernard Shaw’s work has spawned a genre within sociology and its effect is often cited with regards to education and social class. The Pygmalion effect “teacher-expectancy effect” refers to situations where perform better than their peers simply because they were expected to do so. The effect requires a student to internalize the expectations of their superiors (in our case men). In effect, it is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. In Pygmalion, Professor Henry Higgins makes a bet that he can teach a poor flower girl to speak and act like an upper-class lady, and is successful.

In all three plays the women’s characters are shown to be much deeper and sophisticated than the men make them out to be. Like the statue of the beautiful woman in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, there is more to meet the eye than the surface material indicates. There is a beautiful woman underneath. In all three of our modern plays, the women are like ivory-hard, yet pliable and workable, adapting to the conditions at hand. While they might not do successfully, the female characters are lionized anyway for the efforts at navigating in the straight jacket forced upon them by the Victorian world. Their pragmatism allowed them to thrive in the limited ways in which they did. Liza Doolittle put it this way when she talked about the double-entendre of Victorian when she quipped “I could have been a bad girl if I’d liked…Girls like me can drag gentlemen down to make love to them easy enough. And they wish each other dead the next minute (Shaw 117).” Liza realizes her power as a woman. She is being empowered by the process.

Truly, there is more than meets the eye beneath the submissive female exterior.

Even in a defeated character like Maurya, she realizes her lamentable fate when she muses “Isn’t it a hard and cruel man won’t hear a word from an old woman, and she holding him from the sea (Synge 26)?” Maurya realizes that it is the matriarch whose strength holds the household together and that sustains the men in her life.

Even Minnie in Trifles may have reached her limit when her husband wrung her birds neck (Glaspell 37). Evidently, the Pygmalion Effect does not always apply and could be potentially fatal for the instructor.

Has the Pygmalion Effect had much effect in feminine images in literary circles? This is a fair question. According to the book the Pygmalion Effect, the “evolution” of the Pygmalion Effect duplicates, in a significant way, the path taken by various methods for simulating movement, or even life. The Pygmalion Effect was born in a text, a text as crafty as any to be found: Ovid’s Metamorphoses…The life/death dialectic is at the heart…(Stoichi ).” The stories we read in class are not all life and death. Shaw’s tale is quite light. However, it is truly is a matter of life and death for Glaspell and Synge’s protagonists. There is nothing light about their existence and they certainly are suffering from what the society around them unfairly and unrealistically expects from them.

The life death dialectic of Pygmalion has not just had an impact upon literature in the United States. It has had effects on a Hegelian dialectical perspective in Germany:

For almost all of these writers, those aspects of our lives that are subject to the determinations of interest are connected to our identities as material beings…The aesthetic is thus almost by definition anti-materialistic…It is because art is always at some level dependent upon material embodiment that it cannot, for Hegel, serve as the ultimate vehicle of spirit…we also associate with things in the world…in variously refined tendencies toward fetishism and the Pygmalion syndrome? (Simpson 10)

To recap, males in the Victorian age created ivory-like stereotypes of the ideal woman like Pygmalion’s ivory statue in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The women are able to overcome these stereotypes. In late nineteenth and in early twentieth century literature, Victorian culture was frequently lampooned or criticized by creating ivory-maiden characters that broke or flouted the stereotype in various ways in order to deal with the insane male dominated reality. The women in the plays have to deal with the stereotypical images dictated by the male society but overcome and get ahead of them. In all three of our works the three female characters have to deal with male domination and push the envelopes of their femininity to deal with the male-dominated world of Victorian sensibilities in order just to get by or to succeed. The male figures are shown to be short sighted and blinded by their prejudice concerning women. These male figures look only at the superficial aspects of the females in their lives and fail to perceive the sophistication of these women. They try to mold the women instead into their ideal female likeness. The women, even if they are “good students” like Liza Doolittle do not completely measure up, because they retain their feminist independence.

Works Cited

Glaspell, Susan. Trifles. Frank Shay: The Washington Square Players, New York, NY,

1916. Print.

Ovid. “Metamorphoses: The Story of Pygmalion and the Statue .” Internet Classics

Archive. Internet Classics Archive, 2009. Web. 31 Dec 2010. .

Shaw, George Bernard. Pygmalion. New York, NY: Forgotten Books, 2008. Print.


, Victor Leronim . The Pygmalion effect: from Ovid to Hitchcock . 1st ed.

London, England: University Of Chicago Press, 2008. Print.

Simpson, David. The Origins of Modern Critical Thought: German Aesthetic and Literary Criticism from Lessing to Hegel . Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Print.

Synge, John Millington. Riders to the Sea. Boston, MA: John W. Luce and Co., 1911.

26. Print.

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